Mahler is a daunting composer to consider performing. Attempting his Symphony No. 8, “Symphony of a Thousand”, named because of the immense orchestra and chorus required, sometimes makes you feel it is one of the last pieces any sane conductor would want to do. While the most recent release from SFS Media, San Francisco Symphony’s own label, is most definitely not the last thing we’ll hear from Michael Tilson Thomas, he did leave Mahler’s 8th to be the final in the set of Mahler symphonies, due out August 25th.
"...this promises to be a triumphant capstone to the entire cycle." -San Francisco Chronicle
Mahler Symphony No. 8 is joined (and preluded) by the first movement of what would have been his Symphony No. 10 had he been able to finish it. The sense of torment and anxiety is clearly felt in the music as Mahler was afraid he was losing his wife to another man. Parts of this piece could easily serve as score to a Hitchcock film, with moments of tranquil splendor haunted by a tormented psychosis. The beauty is how well this piece performs the role of prelude to the monster Faustian work of Symphony No. 8.
Based in part on Goethe’s Faust, this symphony is a quest for understanding where the power of life and love coincide or conflict. From the opening chord complete with church organ, with the chorus following with “Veni, creator spiritus” (Come, creator spirit), the tone is set to stir the muses, to erupt with creative energy and spew forth a magma of music rich and complete with all the nuances such a story demands. The voices are vivid and layered; the orchestra is powerful and yet dynamic, pulling back to allow other elements forward when needed. So often the smaller parts of the score are covered up with the immensity of the music. In the first movement, Alexander Barantschik has a wonderful moment as the solo violin lightly plays with chorus behind. While Mahler wanted the words to be heard (and they can be), it was lovely to hear this delicate, playful tune brought out so nicely.
The brass get a healthy workout in the symphony, particularly in the Infunde Amorem Cordibus. They are brilliant at cutting through to create a sense of bold determination. Add the chorus crying out to the heavens and the power of the music is almost unbearable, certainly impossible not to feel ones pulse race, ones breathing become labored and intense. This symphony is rather at the opposite end of the spectrum from Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, which set the stage for what a romantic symphony should be; Mahler’s 8th is the pinnacle of what a romantic symphony can be. San Francisco Symphony captures the intensity, drama, power, scope and emotion with adroit dexterity.
While some orchestras are just now starting their own recording labels, San Francisco has releasing critically acclaimed performances on CD since 2001 on its own SFS Media – the first orchestra to create its own label. Not only do they record live performances, but they also produce Keeping Score, a multi-media project designed to help make classical music more accessible to people of all ages. In 2001, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony began the process of presenting and recording the complete cycle of Mahler symphonies. This most recent recording is amazing in its clarity, depth of expression and sheer power, continuing the ascent their a breath-taking Mahler project.
For more information about the San Francisco Symphony, Keeping Score or other offers by SFS Media visit the SFS Website.
Although Mahler's Symphony No. 8 was the last of the symphonies to be recording, this is NOT the last of the Mahler Project. Next Month San Francisco Symphony’s will perform a three-week Mahler Festival with live recordings of Rúckert Lieder performed by Susan Graham and Songs of a Wayfarer performed by Thomas Hampson will complete the orchestra’s recordings of Mahler works for voice and orchestra. This final album in the orchestra’s Mahler Project, which will also include Des Knaben Wunderhorn, is scheduled for release in 2010. (Kindertotenlieder, Das Lied von der Erde , and Das klagende Lied have already been released.)